The Sands of Forvie, Aberdeen, Scotland, comprise 1,018 hectares1 of undisturbed sand dunes, heath, estuary and sea cliffs full of eider duck, terns, and skylarks. You'll find wild pansies, eyebright and primroses in grass kept short by hundreds of rabbits, and you're bound to spot eider ducks' heads bobbing up and peering at you from the heather.
Walking along the estuary to the dunes, you'll see terns glide alongside you before banking and diving into the water after sand-eels. The shifting sand dunes are never the same one year to the next. Upon reaching the sea, you'll discover a mile and a half of empty sand - empty except for sea-gulls and oyster catchers - which stretches north to the beginning of the cliffs.
Estuary, Dunes, Hinterland and Cliffs
The River Ythan's estuary, running along the southern edge of Forvie Sands, is inter-tidal sand flat and mud, with some saltmarsh. At low tide in summer there are always curlew stalking and prodding the mud, and redshank picking their way around the water edge. In winter thousands of geese arrive and at high tide swans, eider and mergansers take over.
The sand dune system is the fifth largest and least disturbed in Britain. Dating back to at least 2000BC the dunes are still forming at the southern end, still unstable and shaping new landscapes in every storm.
Behind the dunes is heathland, where the sands have been colonised by heath, heather, crowberry and creeping willow, with areas of marshland and water pools. Thousands of eider will breed in the heather in spring.
The northern half of Forvie is edged by sea cliffs, home to gulls, kittiwakes and fulmars. Schools of porpoise are sometimes seen from the cliffs, out at sea. Half way along is Hackley Bay, a horseshoe-shaped beach with pink sand. Steps take you down steep cliffs onto the beach where you may be buzzed by seagulls if you get too close to their young.
Birds, Butterflies and Plants
Forvie has recorded more than 225 species of birds, with at least 43 breeding. Six thousand eider duck spend summer there, breeding, moulting and chuntering away to each other in large flotillas on the water. In spring you'll see 'nanny' eiders out at sea with nurseries of 15 to 20 chicks swimming behind in a long tail, which undulates in the waves like a miniature Loch Ness monster.
In winter up to 10,000 geese, such as the pinkfoot, take refuge on the estuary and, in spring, four species of tern breed in a protected area. Apart from the birds already mentioned, among the 225 species are lapwing, little-ringed plover, turnstones, various duck, greenshank, knot, ruff and bar-tailed godwit.
Pearl-bordered and dark-green fritillary, small coppers, and grayling are among the beautiful butterflies flying over Forvie, together with a variety of moths and the odd helicopter on its way to the north sea oil rigs. There is an abundance of insect life in general.
The dune colonisers, marram grass and sea rocket trap the moving sands, stabilising them for the heathland plants. Thrift and campion line the cliffs with the occasional wild orchid and beautiful blue-flowered carnivorous butterwort. The marshland hosts reed beds, wild iris and marsh marigolds. There are many other species - wild violets, cowslips, ferns - too many to list.
Archaeology and Today
Shifting sand has revealed evidence of man's presence at Forvie from 5000BC. However, over time the dunes have driven man out, and in 1413 a nine day storm buried the last remaining foothold in sand. All that can be seen now is part of the walls of the Forvie village church. It is said that this storm was the result of a curse put upon Forvie by three sisters who were driven out to sea in a leaking boat after a dispute over a legacy.
In 1959 Forvie Sands became one of Scotland's first National Nature Reserves. The reserve is held under lease agreements with various landowners who retain rights for some wildfowl shooting on the pools and various leisure activities on the estuary. On the beach traditional salmon nets are set up. The reserve is managed by a warden and is open to the public all year round.
Directions for Visitors
Forvie is on the coast, about 12 miles north of Aberdeen. Follow signs for Newburgh off the main A92 and then for Collieston. Half a mile north of Newburgh is the bridge over the Ythan estuary, over this, almost immediately on the right (going north), is a parking area. A lane and footpaths lead by the estuary into Forvie Sands. It's about 3/4 of a mile from the car park to the beach.
Staying on the road, you come to two laybys on the left with good views over the estuary. Carrying on still further you come to a crossroads. The right hand turn for Collieston takes you to another right turn off to the northern end of Forvie and the visitor centre.
Turning left instead of right at the crossroads takes you, after about a mile and a half, to a small lane on the left leading to a bird hide overlooking the estuary.
Forvie Centre and Footpaths
Forvie has a visitor centre with information and a video presentation, but it is not always open and there are no 'facilities' when it's closed.
Two footpaths start here: one going straight to the cliffs past a large water pool, the other cutting a corner and taking you across dunes and heath meeting the first path at the cliffs further south. The path continues along the cliffs, past Hackley Bay to the site of Forvie village where you can go left onto the beach or right, crossing heathland, to meet up with the path along the estuary. The walk from the centre to Forvie village is about 2 miles.
The bird hide (directions above) gives very good views of the mud flats and waders, or the water and ducks, depending whether the tide is in or out.
Forvie Sands is a wild place, full of life. It needs to be taken care of if it is to stay like this. Visitors are asked to keep to paths and to keep dogs on leads, and all the usual requests about not picking plants, lighting fires and so on apply. Go there to see the wildlife, the eiders and terns in particular, then go to the very pretty Balmedie beach area, a few miles closer to Aberdeen (signposted from the A92), to let off steam, fly kites, buy ice cream at their centre, surf in the North sea, whatever!